Identity and attributes

2010-11-27 15:33

In many fields of discussion, you eventually run into the fundamental question: How do you distinguish between identity and attributes? This might seem a bit abstract, so lemme give a few examples.

The one that brought this to mind is the people who claim that it is offensive to say “autistic people” rather than “people with autism”. Their essential claim is that “autism” is a trait one has, but not a definition of who you are. Another common case is religious debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same god”. People who think they do will argue that the two groups are clearly describing the same entity, but are disagreeing about the entity’s characteristics; people who think they don’t will say that the characteristics in question are the definition, such that if you think something else, you’re talking about a different entity.

For most people, gender identity is an example of who-you-are, and eye color is an example of something-about-you. People rarely have much sense of identity associated with their eye color, but frequently view their gender identity as essential to who they are. If you’re a reasonably typical person, the question of what it would be like to have eyes of a different color is at most marginally interesting, but the question of what it would be like to be of the opposite sex is borderline-incoherent; that tends to be something where people feel what’s described would be a different person, not just them with different attributes. Thus, an MTF transgendered person will not identify as “a man with gender dysphoria”, but as “a woman with the wrong body”.

So far as I can tell, most of the mildly-autistic people I know would describe autism as a who-you-are trait. If you changed that, you wouldn’t have the same person with a different trait; you’d have a different person.

Consider two experiences. One is, your car starts making a squeaking noise when you start it, which is probably some kind of belt slipping thing. The other is, a close friend of yours breaks down sobbing. Obviously, these are both of the same essential form; a thing of value to you is emitting a diagnostic that tells you that something is wrong and probably needs to be fixed. Now, I’m pretty sure that most people actually experience them much more differently than that. In fact, having speculated that, I asked my spouse, who is apparently not autistic. Apparently, the normal thing is that when you perceive a person in pain, you experience some kind of pain. Well, that must be very upsetting, I guess? I have no clue. I can’t comprehend it. I can be sad because I know a friend is sad, but the fundamental experience of empathy is, so far as I can tell, not part of my world. I have a lot of sympathy, sometimes, but nothing I can recognize as empathy.

That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that, if you changed it, the resulting entity would be recognizably me. That’d be some other guy. Maybe a really cool guy, but not me.

Because of this, I prefer “autistic” to “person with autism”. This is not some separate thing that we should disregard when talking about the “real” me. Trying to get past the autism to see the “real” me is like trying to get past all the layers of the onion to the “real” onion.

Peter Seebach




  1. s/union/onion/

    — Barton · 2010-12-01 22:36 · #

  2. I know that this is a bit of an old post, but thanks. I am dyspraxic, which is a neurological disorder affecting primarily fine motor control, but also sits on the autism spectrum so comes with a significant amount of mild symptoms.

    Unlike you, I do identify myself as a person with dyspraxia. I think its because I was taught to not let my dyspraxia get in the way of what I wanted to do.

    What really got to me in this post was your comparison between the squeaky car engine and the sobbing friend. I do the same thing, much to the chagrin of my friends. I like to fix things, and since people are, in my mind, still things, I try to fix them. I often get upset because I find I cant fix them, for whatever reason.

    So again, thnks. It’s always nice to find somebody that shares the same quirk as you do.

    James · 2010-12-24 03:46 · #